If O'Bannon beats the NCAA, here's how college players could be paid

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

If the NCAA loses its upcoming trial, it might no longer be able to tell its member schools what to do with their money.

The goal of the plaintiffs in the O'Bannon college sports broadcasts lawsuit is to give players a portion of the NCAA's hundreds of millions of dollars worth of revenue. But the much more complicated part of the lawsuit is the actual method by which players would eventually be paid.

The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction, meaning they don't have to describe exactly what will happen if they win. However, in a recent court filing, they gave a picture of how that money might be distributed.

(The) injunction would merely prevent the NCA and its members from agreeing not to compensate college athletes for the use of their (likenesses). Free market forces would then determine whether schools decide unilaterally to compensate college athletes for use of their (likenesses) and whether to do so by group license.

The plaintiffs want a prohibitory injunction, not a mandatory injunction. This means that they aren't trying to force the NCAA to set aside a specific amount of money for athletes. Rather, they just want to force the NCAA to end its rules prohibiting athletes from receiving money from the schools. They're confident from the evidence they have (including their plan to show that EA Sports wanted to pay players for appearances in video games) that this will still make a major difference for athletes.

When will players get paid?

The plaintiffs said they are not opposed to the money being deferred to athletes until after graduation.

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One possibility is payment for a use of a college athlete's (likeness) into a trust fund that would only be disbursed to the college athlete after graduation or expiration of eligibility ... Additionally, the NCAA could abolish the restraint at the national level, leaving it to the individual conferences — in consultation with their member schools — to authorize or prohibit sharing (likeness) licensing revenues with college athletes.

Again, this isn't what the plaintiffs are "suing for," per se. It's merely a suggestion. But a trust fund seems like the most likely scenario at this point. Outside the context of the O'Bannon lawsuit, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and others have mentioned similar ideas as potential NCAA reforms.

Who will decide how much money athletes get?

The plaintiffs have suggested that there will be a free market system, which would imply that each school can decide how to pay players. That's technically true, and a school could decide to do whatever it wants, because it would no longer be restricted by the NCAA. However, prices seem more likely to be set at the conference level.

There's already a great deal of revenue sharing within conferences, to keep competitive balance, because that's generally regarded as good for the sport and good for business. Competitive balance among separate conference tiers matters less. But generally, it's not good for business if one team just destroys the rest of the teams in its conference (this is why a salary cap exists in the NFL).

So to keep things relatively fair between schools, and since most television revenue comes in from the conference level, it's likely that each conference will decide how much their schools give each athlete. Eventually, the market would establish rough payment tiers: the power five, the other FBS conferences, the FCS conferences, etc.

This is also in line with how the NCAA's power conferences are looking to rearrange themselves. The power conferences are currently trying to give players full-cost-of-attendance scholarships, which would only increase compensation by a few hundred or thousand dollars, depending on the school.

Which athletes will be paid, and will it be equal?

There are really two options for the conferences: do they pay all athletes or just revenue-sport athletes?

Some people will claim the latter violates Title IX, though there are serious doubts to that opinion. Title IX guarantees equal opportunities to men and women, but it's not certain that male athletes couldn't receive more money for their services, since scholarship amounts already vary among athletes.

Still, conferences generally value fairness among all sports, so it's easy to see a system in which athletes are all offered the same amount of money.

Deregulation of the NCAA's current rules would theoretically allow schools and conferences to appropriate money however they want, meaning they could potentially pay their stars more. However, that model is inefficient, and we're more likely to see an NFL-style model, in which money is distributed evenly.

But there is one caveat that could benefit star players. Let's say a football player is featured prominently on promotional materials or a player is featured on commercials. That player might receive a better cut of the money than his peers. Under the plaintiffs' suggestions in the filing, players would also be able to market themselves, which would benefit the revenue-sport athletes more than their non-revenue-sport peers.

How would all this look in real life?

Let's start from the beginning.

We have a football player named Jim who is one of the best quarterbacks in the country. He's offered an extra $1,000 (this number is completely arbitrary) per year to attend a Big Ten university, which he chooses over similar offers from other power conferences and lower offers from smaller schools he never would have attended anyway. His offer is the same as that made to the women's basketball players coming to campus.

However, since Jim is the star quarterback, he's featured on the schools' promotional materials and thus gets more money than most of the athletes at the school. He also does some car commercials on the side to make money while in school. But he has to wait until he graduates to use the money he's accumulated from the school itself.

This is the ideal scenario for the O'Bannon plaintiffs, and while they aren't the ones setting the rules of the system, this is their understanding of how the free market would work.

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